If you order ice cream for dessert in some of London’s hipper restaurants, your options could range from soft-serve presented on candyfloss clouds through to avocado ice cream stuffed into tacos and topped with corn. The frozen dessert has been given the full Willy Wonka treatment — and the more Instagram-worthy, the better.
“Ice cream is creative. There are no rules,” says Ahrash Akbari-Kalhur, the co-founder of Chin Chin Labs in London. Chin Chin makes ice cream using liquid nitrogen in its three outlets, giving customers a bit of free theatre alongside a superior scoop. “When you freeze ice cream, you want to freeze it really quickly or really slowly. Using liquid nitrogen you can freeze it very quickly and get smaller ice crystals. That means you have a smoother ice cream, can get away with using less fat and less sugar, and you don’t have to use stabilisers. Plus, the actual flavour of the ice cream will be more intense,” he says.
Akbari-Kalhur and his wife, Nyisha Weber, opened their first Chin Chin in 2010, but the scene was very different then, he says. “It was terrible because nitrogen ice cream was a new concept in London. We had to pitch to everyone that came in. I had to explain the process to them — why it makes superior ice cream.
“There’s been a cultural shift, though, and our sales have really started to take off,” he says. Chefs have been making nitrogen ice cream on MasterChef, and Heston Blumenthal uses it at Dinner, both of which helped Chin Chin, says Akbari-Kalhur. He has always been keen to innovate — Chin Chin introduced the brownwich in 2014, a brownie-cookie ice cream sandwich — and this year it is staying ahead of the curve with the avo taco. “It’s avocado and horchata ice cream in a taco waffle cone, with a yuzu cream and fried corn on top. It’s somewhere between sweet and savoury,” he says.
So why are British diners ready for mad-scientist ices in a way we weren’t a few years ago? It’s a combination of factors, says Akbari-Kalhur. Of course, there’s the influence of Instagram, where novelties such as Milk Train’s soft-serve on candyfloss clouds look as though they were created for social media first and to eat second — unsurprisingly, it attracts more “likes” than a picture of your mate eating a Magnum.
Then there’s the escapism factor. When the news seems unremittingly grim, who can blame those seeking refuge in Melba at the Savoy’s new “iceclair” (eclairs filled with ice cream), an egg-waffle cone (a huge bubbly cone, piled high with ice cream and multicoloured toppings from Bubblewrap London), or the Mr Whippy-on-steroids black charcoal ice cream with giant marshmallows (by Soft Serve Society). “The popularity of ice cream is to do with nostalgia and childhood innocence. The milk and fattiness reminds us of when we were young,” says Akbari-Kalhur.
Many of these trends are influenced by what’s happening in places with established ice-cream scenes. Australia leads the way, says Akbari-Kalhur, having first given the world the freakshake (a monstrous ice-cream shake topped with waffles, brownies and other snacks, which started appearing in cafés across the UK last year). “We are seeing British versions of the candyfloss cones now, but Aqua S in Sydney has been doing that for maybe four years,” he explained. “Instagram has allowed people to quickly access what other chefs are doing around the world.”
Ice-cream parlours and chefs are also looking across the Pond. To LA, where Little Damage created jet-black ice cream with charcoal. Or to New York, never slow to launch a trend. “People here are looking to New York a lot, especially to Dominique Ansel — his stuff is amazing,” says Akbari-Kalhur.
I couldn’t just put a sorbet in a cup — that would never catch your attention
Indeed, New York’s reigning patisserie chef (Ansel invented the Cronut) has brought some of his magic to London this summer. On the menu at Ansel’s London bakery are two unique frozen creations. The first, frozen s’mores, is a reworking of an American campfire classic — marshmallows and chocolate toasted between two graham crackers (similar to digestives). The Ansel version features Tahitian vanilla ice cream inside a honey marshmallow and chocolate wafer crisps. It’s served on a branch of smoked willow and torched to order. A Cornetto, it is not.
“London customers got the concept straightaway, it’s one of our bestsellers,” says Ansel. New to his London menu this year is the kiwi sorbet bar. In the very loosest sense, it’s a choc ice. If a choc ice were made to look like the cross-section of a kiwi fruit when you bit into it. “We made a vanilla ice cream centre surrounded by poppy seeds, then kiwi sorbet,” says Ansel. The outside is milk chocolate, given a “fuzzy” finish so it looks like kiwi skin.
“I couldn’t just put a kiwi sorbet in a cup — that would never catch your attention. This is playful, with different textures, it’s something you want to eat again.
“What I love about ice cream is what everyone else likes — it’s nostalgic. It’s emotional, and that’s definitely something I think about when coming up with a new ice cream. It has to be elegant, modern and playful.”
Sounds like a tall order, especially when ice-cream trends pop up faster than you can say “neon-blue soft serve”. Yet Ansel, like Chin Chin Labs, continues to set trends rather than follow them. Watch this space for his “what-a-melon” soft serve — a slice of watermelon filled with a swirl of watermelon ice cream and finished with chocolate “seeds”, a photogenic smash in New York and Tokyo. Whether Britain is quite ready for his corn-on-the-cob ice cream, which is very big in Japan, remains to be seen.
In the past, dairy-avoiders, vegans and anyone concerned about their sugar intake would have felt excluded from the latest ice-cream trends. Yet vegan and even “gut-healthy” ice creams are big news this year. The Hackney restaurant Rawduck makes an elegant kefir milk and red gooseberry ice cream. Glow Pops, a book of healthy lollies in flavours such as “turmeric golden milk” is “this summer’s most delicious (and healthy) food trend,” according to Vogue USA.
The vegan ice-cream parlour Yorica! creates social media-worthy swirls of ices with colourful toppings, and is about to open a second branch. “Vegan ice cream is super-popular — even for people that aren’t vegan. The market’s growing massively,” says Akbari-Kalhur. “We always have at least two vegan flavours on the menu now.”
Poptails — boozy lollies for grown-ups — are also doing a roaring trade. Pops popsicles come in Pimm’s, bellini and champagne flavours and are available from Ocado. During the early June heatwave (remember that?) they enjoyed a 480 per cent sales spike, according to a spokesperson for the brand. Aldi does a budget-friendly gin and tonic popsicle. They’re also easy to make at home — google gin and tonic lollies recipe.
Ice-cream trends come and go faster than a 99 on a hot day. Last year’s freakshake, then the darling of Instagram, already seems old hat. Watch this space for more black ice cream (presently only available in a few London spots, such as Soft Serve Society, and Pear Tree Café in Battersea), rainbow cones, galaxy ices (don’t ask) and savoury concoctions. If you’re the type who likes your dessert to be a choice of three scoops from a list of six flavours, look away now.
Gourmet frozen dessert recipes
Dominique Ansel’s kiwi sorbet
Makes about 1 litre
561g kiwi puree (available in gourmet food shops and online) or 10-12 kiwi fruits, peeled and pureed in a blender
50g agave nectar
Dark chocolate, to serve (optional)
1 In a pan, combine the kiwi puree and water and simmer while stirring over medium heat until the mixture begins to steam on the surface (do not boil).
2 Stir in the sugar and agave nectar. Bring to the boil, stirring throughout to stop the mixture burning.
3 Chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours. Pour the chilled sorbet mixture into an ice-cream maker and churn until frozen, according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
4 Serve on its own, or sprinkle chocolate shavings on top. Use a bar of dark chocolate and a grater to make the shavings.
Rawduck’s kefir and red gooseberry ice cream
Makes 1.5 litres
For the ice cream
500ml milk kefir (shop-bought or homemade — see recipe)
120g egg yolk
90g caster sugar
500ml double cream
For the gooseberry jam
200g red gooseberries
Juice of half a lemon
1 To make the milk kefir from scratch, you need to do this two days ahead. Add 1 tsp of kefir grains (available from health food shops) to 500ml of full-fat milk, cover and leave at room temperature for two days to ferment. Pass the milk through a fine-meshed sieve to remove the grains (add the grains to another batch of milk instead of throwing them away).
2 To make the jam, add the gooseberries and sugar to a heavy-bottomed pan and warm the gooseberries and sugar over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Turn up the heat to high and boil the jam until it hits setting point at 105C, stirring to stop it from catching. Squeeze in the lemon juice to finish and allow to cool.
3 To make the ice cream, beat the egg and sugar together in an electric stand mixer (or in a large bowl with an electric whisk) until very thick, pale and at least tripled in volume. Warm the cream in a saucepan until it starts to simmer round the edge, then slowly pour into the egg mixture with the motor still running to combine.
4 While the mixer is on, place a large bowl over another bowl with ice in it, ready to pour the custard in when it is done (when it thickens it must be poured out of the hot pan and cooled quickly).
5 Once the cream, eggs and sugar are combined, return the mixture to the saucepan. Cook this custard mixture over a low heat, stirring constantly, until it has thickened to coat the back of a spoon, then immediately pour into the prepared bowl.
6 Leave to cool and chill overnight. Fold the milk kefir into the chilled custard and churn according to your ice-cream machine instructions. Once it’s churned, gently ripple through the gooseberry jam and then freeze for at least 4 hours before serving.
Chin Chin Labs’ avocado horchata ice cream
Makes about 2 litres
400ml double cream
120g caster sugar
80g runny honey
80g golden syrup
1 cinnamon stick
100g tiger nuts
1 litre whole milk, room temperature
200g beaten egg yolk (about 10 egg yolks)
4 very ripe avocados
Pinch of lime zest
Tiny pinch of ground cinnamon
1 Place half the cream in a clean container or pan. Put a sieve on top and set aside.
2 Place a big saucepan on a gentle heat and add the remaining cream, sugar, honey, syrup, cinnamon stick and tiger nuts with 750ml of the milk.
3 Warm the infused milk mixture to 60C. Stir in the beaten yolks and cook the custard until it has thickened and coats the back of the spoon. Stir constantly — be careful the custard doesn’t split.
4 Quickly pour the custard into the sieve over the container with the remaining cream in it. Discard the spices.
5 In a food processor, blitz the avocados until smooth. Add the remaining milk slowly to loosen it into a puree.
6 Whisk the avocado puree into the base, adding the lime zest and a small pinch of cinnamon.
7 Cool the base and freeze according to your ice-cream maker instructions. This ice cream lasts for about a month in an airtight tub in your freezer.
8 To serve . . . we make our own waffle tacos with blue corn to a secret recipe. For something similar at home, try Cool Chile’s blue corn tacos. Rub with a little oil and bake in a moderate oven until crispy. Dust with a little icing sugar and serve with the ice cream inside.